Painting from Photos in the Studio Using an LCD Screen

Painting from Photos in the Studio Using an LCD Screen

with 11 Comments

Figuring out the best way to paint from photos in the studio has been a long-time challenge for many artists. Some artists feel that painting from photos is too much of a departure from the influence of experiencing scenes and painting them in person, so they never refer to photos while painting. I’ve found in my work that photos are a great help, especially when painting large canvases that incorporate figures. The key for me to maintain spontaneity and looseness in my studio paintings is to practice working from life as often as possible. I’ll either venture outdoors for some plein air painting, visit a local life drawing session or hire a model for this vital experience (at least weekly if possible). Photos do tend to fall short in many areas, which is where experience painting from life really becomes beneficial.

These days, many artists are using their computer screens as a way to display photos from which to paint. I’ve had success painting from my iMac screen, but my easel is now in the back room of my gallery and not close enough to my computer. I decided to buy an LCD TV to use instead, and ended up with a Samsung 22″ LCD HDTV. I use an HDMI cable and an adapter which allows me to display photos on the LCD screen using my iPhone. The picture quality of the LCD is great and the screen produces nice, vibrant colors. The LCD allows me to match the colors that I saw when viewing the photos on my iMac–a great improvement over the times when I used to print out source photos on my printer. I was always having to make major color corrections while painting from printed photos in order to try to match the colors that I liked in the photo as displayed on my iMac. So the LCD TV works well in my studio painting process.

How are you using technology in your studio to give you the best painting experience? Do you find that technology is helping you as you create your artwork?

11 Responses

  1. Lori Woodward
    | Reply

    Hi Dan,

    Yes, I too have been painting using my PC monitor. What I love about it is that I can save a lighter and darker version of the photo so that I can see into the darks and details in the lights. I also sometimes modify the color a bit to match the memory of the colors of the landscape.

    Many times, I do a short watercolor study – en plein air to capture the true colors I see. These are not finished paintings, but just enough info to help me produce a believable final painting in the studio. I use these watercolor studies in conjunction with the photographs on my PC monitor.

    Thanks for bringing this up. I’ve seen Richard Schmid finish paintings he started from life in his studio using his Mac Monitor.

  2. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks for your comment, Lori. Great idea to save a lighter and darker version of the photo. I also do some color editing of my photos in Photoshop so I can get them just right. I also sometimes adjust the color on the TV itself to push it one way or the other. It’s great to have so many options.

    On-the-spot studies are certainly invaluable since no matter what we do, the camera just doesn’t pick up the colors we see.

  3. Garrett Schuh
    | Reply

    The link below shows Richard Schmid painting from a monitor. It’s fun to watch him paint. He seems like a really happy person.

    I’m working on a portrait of my daughter and painting from my monitor. I could never get her to sit still long enough so using the monitor has helped on that project. The colors on the monitor have more depth than a photo of the same image.

  4. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Great video, Garrett — thanks for sharing that. I’m glad that painting from your monitor is helping you with your daughter’s portrait. You’ll have to bring it by for me to see sometime.

  5. […] As I’ve mentioned before, I use my iPhone to display my source photo on an LCD monitor as I paint. So I flatten and save my source photo with the grid lines as a new .JPG and transfer it to my iPhone. I also transfer the source photo .JPG that has no grid. […]

  6. Lynn Davis-Smith
    | Reply

    I’m glad you brought this up, Dan. I’ve been meaning for a time to set up a monitor in my studio that I can paint from, and this inspires me to pursue that goal. I usually print photos out, which is less than desirable for reasons already mentioned here. I also often lighten versions in an editing program which helps to see more detail in the shadows. And, a friend taught me to use the posterize feature in Photoshop, which helps to simplify masses of value, color and shapes. The tools we have available now are wonderful, but you are right — very difficult for a camera to show the range that our eyes can see. It’s all good.

  7. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks, Lynn. I’m glad to show you my setup next time you come by my gallery if you’d like.

  8. Rob Anglin
    | Reply


    For many decades, I have “thought” and composed with my camera before settling-down to paint on-location (watercolors for a couple decades before a 20-year hiatus from painting & now in oils). I always thought it would be handy to use my photos for reference, yet NEVER did. Besides, I have seen WAY too many paintings in which the artist was a slave to their photographs (sometimes even including re-creation of their flash source of light).

    After too-long avoidance of using my photographic work for reference, I took a week-long class with Ned Mueller at the Scottsdale Artists’ School last week, in which he had us work from our own reference photos (a few students used Ned’s photos). I am thrilled at the results, and hope to do more studio work where I am at liberty to refer to my photos.

    For Ned Mueller’s workshop, I printed dozens of my color photos to B&W on my copier at home and printed a handful in color at Costco… and this worked fine.

    As-of yet, I do not have a TV or PC-monitor in my painting studio…yet if I get a laptop or touchscreen computer, I may get one for my studio & invest in a small monitor such as you have described. I can see how it might be handy. The big admonition is to resist becoming a slave to the camera… we are better than that.

  9. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Rob. I agree that there is a danger in being too literal when painting from a photo. I think our tendency is always to copy too literally, so you’re right to resist becoming a slave to the camera. But I would add that we can also become too tied up by the literal details while working from life. The danger is there in both cases, so either way we have to exercise restraint. But since the weather, light, etc. can’t change suddenly in our photos, the camera gives us the added pitfall of unlimited work time!

  10. kelvin
    | Reply

    Thanks for info. I find it almost impossible to compare values on a computer screen with the mixed paint on my palette knife.
    This is because when I hold my mixed paint value up to the screen it becomes a silhouette. Do you have any advice?

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      You can’t really compare your colors directly with a screen because the screen is made up of little pixels of light, and the paint on your palette knife isn’t. You can learn to make the visual comparison between screen and paint through practice (which is what I’m used to now, except when I paint the landscape outdoors), or you could print out your photos so you can then compare your paint colors directly to the printed photo colors. (Although the printed colors won’t match the colors exactly from your screen either.)

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